09/04/2002 11:00PM

Pincay ready, and eager to go

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DEL MAR, Calif. - One year in the life of a professional athlete can make all the difference in the world, especially if that athlete is 55 years old. Muscles degenerate. Reactions slow. Recuperative powers disappear.

Part of the Laffit Pincay Jr. miracle, however, is the fact that he's doing it all backward. He's supposed to be falling apart, but instead Pincay says he feels better than he did a year ago, and a year ago he felt pretty good. Good enough, anyway, to take the race for the 2001 Del Mar riding title down to the wire before he was edged by Alex Solis, 36-34.

This season Pincay could finish second again, this time to runaway leader Pat Valenzuela. Nothing wrong with that, considering Valenzuela had ridden 40 more horses than Pincay through Wednesday's card. Still, Pincay does not play for second, which is why he is looking forward to Saturday's $300,000 Del Mar Derby to gain a measure of consolation.

Through Wednesday, Pincay had ridden 47,900 horses and won 9,417 races. Five of those wins came in the Del Mar Derby, which is a record. Two of them stand out above the rest.

In 1982, Pincay was on his way to his fourth Del Mar title when the derby came around. A field of 13 wedged into the snug turf course, and predictable havoc ensued. Pincay, riding favored Give Me Strength for Luis Barrera, already had won four races on the card before the derby. Give Me Strength missed the break, threaded his way around and through the field, and got up at the end to defeat Water Bank. Pincay reacted as if he had won the Kentucky Derby, which he hadn't . . . at least not yet.

"I was just so happy that I had won after it looked so hopeless for most of the race," Pincay said, explaining his fist-pumping outburst.

The nine furlongs of the 1982 Del Mar Derby was run in 1:49. The 1990 version required more than a year to resolve. The race itself, pitting future grass champions Tight Spot and Itsallgreektome against each other, was fairly conclusive. Tight Spot won by three. Tight Spot, however, was disqualified by the stewards, who cited him for bearing in and squeezing the competition as the field raced down the infield chute to the elbow turn joining the main course.

"I was only following the line that the horse inside me was running," Pincay said. "He was the one who tightened it up."

Apparently, Pincay had a case. The owners of Tight Spot appealed the decision to the California Horse Racing Board. After a year of hearings and counter appeals, the disqualification was voided and Tight Spot and Pincay were declared the winners of the 1990 Del Mar Derby. California's rules of racing were subsequently amended to forbid any appeal of a stewards' judgment call.

On Saturday, Pincay will go for his sixth Del Mar Derby with Rock Opera, a son of Breeders' Cup Mile winner Royal Academy who has raced only four times, all on turf. Trained by Cliff Sise, he won his maiden down the hill at Santa Anita, finished third and won in allowance company at Hollywood Park, then won a division of Del Mar's opening day Oceanside Stakes at 1 1/16 miles.

Pincay has been aboard for all four, giving him indisputable perspective on Rock Opera's progress.

"His first race was okay down the turf course, but at Hollywood Park he was really trying to get out on the first turn," Pincay said. "I had to take a hold of him, or I would have ended up on the outside fence.

"That can happen sometimes when they go two turns the first time," Pincay went on. "The turns going down the hill at Santa Anita are not very sharp, so the tight turns at Hollywood were very different for him.

"He's really going nice now," Pincay added. "He runs very straight, and he can rate. His last race was especially good."

Rock Opera and Pincay won their Oceanside division by setting a modest pace, opening a daylight lead on the final turn, and then fighting off the closing kick of Johar and Solis. Johar will be back for the derby, along with Arlington Classic winner Mr. Mellon, Relaunch Stakes winner Dell Place, and the Bobby Frankel team of True Phenomenon and Inesperado.

"The slow pace helped us last time, and the derby is a little longer," Pincay said. "But this horse has the potential to be a very nice horse. And he tries hard every time he runs."

Pincay never asks for more. But if Rock Opera is going to keep up with his jockey, he had better be ready to run the race of his young life.

"I'm telling you, I get up in the morning and I'm eager to go," Pincay said. "I don't know what it is."

Maybe it's just being Laffit.